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Covid, worship, entitlement and freedom…

One of the most difficult things about this pandemic has been the sheer magnitude of extremely polarised opinions, exposing, sadly, a lack of humanity and empathy from all sides at times. The hopeful #bekind campaign of early spring seemed often forgotten through months of unrest, with ageism and ableism all too evident in general discourse about the whole thing (see my post here for more on that – a Pandemic and its Scourge.) Yet, alongside that we saw the best of humanity: the self-sacrifice, the kindness to others, the care for communities.

Today I am angry. It’s an anger tempered with a great sadness but also with great tinges of hope. Anger can actually be okay, it can be vital when confronting injustice – but it must be balanced with grace and compassion, even when we disagree. Jesus’ displayed righteous anger in his rage at the traders in the temple, who were desecrating the house of God in their eagerness to make money and claim their rights.

I believe that the house of God is being desecrated in our world today, with a creeping sense of entitlement becoming more obvious. It’s become stark to me today reading of this stateside campaign to stage ‘protest worship’ concerts of thousands of people all together. If Black Lives Matter protests are permitted to gather, the justification goes, then Christians should be permitted to gather in worship as a protest against the increasing control it is perceived the state is imposing upon them in its closing of churches and worship centres. Their right to worship is more important, because of the danger of shutting down expressions of faith and the precedent this could set. It is my feeling that this co-opting of a protest against endemic racism (and a protest at which most wore masks, and when Covid numbers were in general much lower through the summer months), is surely a dangerous corruption of what it means to support the oppressed.

I watched part of the YouTube recording of one of these concerts. No one was social distancing. No one was wearing masks. Thousands crammed together, singing loudly. The comments jarred with me a little: ‘It’s so wonderful to see thousands together in person worshipping during a pandemic!’ (I love seeing thousands worship together, but when it is possible that causes great harm to others it doesn’t seem wonderful.) ‘God is so anointing this!’ (I’d hope that I could be open to God working even when we mess up, so I am sure that for some it would have been a place of encounter.) To me, this is a temple of self, a gathering of great entitlement, a flouting not only of Covid rules but of Paul’s entreaty to ‘die to self’ (Galatians 2:20) and Christ’s own words about self-denial (Luke 9:23). It seems to me that these protests go sadly and seriously in the face of Jesus’ teaching about love for one’s neighbour and biblical emphasis of the care for those who are oppressed and marginalised (including the sick and vulnerable.) By gathering together so closely in these times and very probably expelling virus, they are in truth endangering lives and livelihoods. 

In great contrast, I watched Paul Harcourt speaking on this video today about why New Wine have made the decision to cancel next year’s United conference. Paul speaks with wisdom, empathy and compassion, modelling a holy response to an intolerable situation and talking creatively of ways in which New Wine will still unite people to worship together through the next months and year. Do watch the video here.

Maybe we need to think about what worship really is. For these protesters, it seems to me that it has become about adopting a libertarian stance and co-opting the Christian faith into their sense that liberty trumps any kind of state control, even during a pandemic where hundreds of thousands are dying and even more becoming long-term sick. Jesus is about freedom, and that seems to have become warped and translated into their own freedom to express faith even when it might harm others.

But what is worship – and what is Christian freedom? The classic verse on freedom is found in Galatians 5:1: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ What we are freed from, in salvation’s narrative, is not perceived control by the state but from our own sin, our own slavery to unrighteousness, our own choice to live for ourselves. We are freed from the bonds of self into the glorious liberty of living in the grace of God.

The essence of worship is expressed so beautifully in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4: ‘Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.’ (v23). Jesus makes it clear that it’s not the where or the when that matters in worship, but the heart of it. We worship out of gratitude for our freedom in Christ, and that can be done in the lounge as much as in a building or with thousands at a concert.

New Wine’s response has heartened and cheered me because it comes from a place of longing to express worship as Jesus described it, knowing that true worship means consideration for others and putting ourselves second. I think that Amos 5 sums it up. When we sing and make music to God out of selfish need or agenda, God is appalled. Amos uses incredibly stark language here to represent God’s feelings about worship without deed and love:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.

Amos 5:21

A show of worship without compassion and looking to the needs – and very lives – of others, is something God looks on very seriously indeed. New Wine have cancelled their United gathering, which usually holds the byline ‘thousands united to worship one,’ knowing that cancelling the event itself does not mean cancelling the spirit of it and the truth of it. Thousands, millions across the world are still united in heart as they worship in their homes and their gardens, knowing that true and proper worship can transcend physical gatherings and comes from a heart after God and a heart after compassion. Of course, there are places where worship really is banned, where people of faith do unite to try and bring freedom to communities, but that is not what is happening here, however much some try to couch it in the language of persecution.

God’s heart for worship is that our hearts are turned away from ourselves, towards God and towards God’s kingdom principles of justice, mercy and hope for the oppressed:

Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:23-24

Let’s join together as worshippers in Spirit and truth, prioritising compassion over personal liberty, denying our own need to enjoy being together in order to put the needs of others before ourselves. Let’s also listen to one another, and keep open to hearing different sides we may disagree with. Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.

Co-opting worship as protest for personal liberty is not, actually, worship. Two contrasting models of response to worship in the #Covid19 pandemic, and one somewhat cross writer…  Click To Tweet

Finally, I will leave you with one of the poems from my new book which sums up my thinking on church getting out of the building – it speaks for itself.

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